11/21/2014 12:39 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Eileen C. McDonnell, Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer, Penn Mutual

Eileen C. McDonnell has been chairman, president and chief executive officer of Penn Mutual since July 2013. She was appointed chief executive officer in 2011, and president in 2010, after serving as chief marketing officer since 2008.

Before joining Penn Mutual, she was president of New England Financial, a wholly owned subsidiary of MetLife, and senior vice president of the Guardian Life Insurance Company. Ms. McDonnell is a former member of the Master of Science in Management faculty at The American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., where she held the newly endowed chair for Women and Financial Services and was author of "Marketing Financial Services to Women."

Ms. McDonnell serves on the Board of Managers of Janney Montgomery Scott LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Penn Mutual. In 2013, Ms. McDonnell was named chair of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania and to the board of Universal Health Services, Inc. (NYSE: UHS). She also is a board member of the American Council of Life Insurers.

A graduate of Molloy College, Rockville Centre, N.Y., Ms. McDonnell majored in mathematics and computer science, and received an honorary doctor of laws (LL.D.) degree in 2011. She earned her MBA in finance and investments from Adelphi University, Garden City, N.Y. and was recognized in 2013 for 'Outstanding Service" to the university.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
No doubt, we are all a product of our life experiences, and that is no different for leaders. I came from a large family, the fourth of six children. So I always had to stand out in order to gain attention. In that respect, I think I learned early how to be a student of people and how to learn from others those things that could help me in life and in my career.

Right now, as a leader, I am very involved in helping to transform the financial services industry, making it more inclusive of minorities and women and readying it for the millennial generation, who will be clients, advisors and associates. But I think I surprise people with my approach to those issues. I don't force change - I demonstrate why change is important. For instance, I don't believe in glass ceilings and don't advance a feminist agenda. Rather, I believe that the flexibility and earnings potential in our industry represents a perfect career choice for bright, ambitious women. Penn Mutual demonstrates that belief through a board that is 45% female and an executive team that is 55% female.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Penn Mutual?
My early experience working in technology is a real asset in the financial services industry. Technology moves so quickly, with an attitude that nothing is ever done. It also embraces contemporary lifestyles. In tech, people work long and hard, but they can do it with devices, from a beach or a home office or after the kids are in bed. We need more of those qualities in financial services, which has given me plenty of opportunity to reinvent and improve. Even simple things help. For instance, in financial services, early Monday morning meetings are still the norm. But today, working parents often can't be in the office by 8 am. They share child-raising responsibilities. In tech, management says, "Fine, let's schedule the meeting later and do it by Skype." That flexibility is more productive and allows them to attract higher quality talent. The ability to socialize these high-tech practices here at Penn Mutual is proving to be a major competitive advantage, one that we're leveraging and accounts for a portion of our growth.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Penn Mutual?
Anyone in financial services knows that the Great Recession presented one of the greatest challenges in the history of the American economy. I came to Penn Mutual in early 2008, right before the disaster, moving my family to Philadelphia and full of expectations based on the sentiment at the time.

When the recession hit that fall, I publicly declared that Penn Mutual would not participate in it and privately told our people to focus only on what we could control, the economy not being one of those things. Internally, they dubbed me the Chief Moral Officer as opposed to the Chief Marketing Officer. We were fortunate that the economic fundamentals of Penn Mutual were strong going into the crisis. We were even more fortunate in having people who could rise to the occasion. In 2009, we had a 1% market share and $11.9 billion in assets under management. By 2013, we had a 2% market share and $17.9 billion in assets under management. We're having another good year in 2014. That speaks volumes about the power of this company and its people, its unique position as a mutual company, and the quality of our advisor network, and the value of our products.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in insurance?
Do not let past performance be an indicator of future performance when it comes to the role of woman in our industry. I firmly believe, and it's been my life's experience, that the insurance industry is the perfect place for smart, ambitious women who want to help people achieve life's possibilities. More and more families are now sharing the child-rearing responsibility, which means both parents need more flexible work schedules. We offer that. At the same time, the industry still offers outstanding earning potential. And finally, change is coming. More and more of our offices are reinventing themselves to work in teams, rework traditional compensation structures, and provide terrific career paths for women, many of whom are finding success servicing female entrepreneurs and other women who have more decision making over family finances. The time is now for women in financial services, much like the way technology, law and healthcare have been transformed by women professionals over the past 20 years.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I recognize that there is never going to be perfect work/life harmony. On balance it just has to work for the individual and their family. That might not be total balance. There are times when I have to make difficult personal decisions of where I can be and when. Today, it might be in balance. Tomorrow, work might have to trump family life, or vice versa. As long as my family understands, and I can be there when most needed personally or professionally, then all is good.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
We need to be careful of falling into the stereotype that women can't earn as much, or that the glass ceiling is impenetrable, or that it even exists. My experience is counter to that stereotype. I truly believe that today's talent market is so competitive that if a woman is in a bad place, she can do something about it. She can leave, find a place that will appreciate her talents, and take control of her career. Whining solves nothing, and I don't have any sympathy for that. Get on with it. Penn Mutual is a living, breathing example of the opportunities available to women in the workplace. These places exist and opportunity is out there. We just have to take it upon ourselves not to accept anything less than what we want out of our careers.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made all the difference in the world to me and it's not just a one-way street. For as much as I have gained from mentors, I have gained more from the opportunity to mentor others. The string of mentors who have been important to me began with my father, who was an educator and impressed upon me the value and importance of education, and reaches all the way to Bob Chappell, Penn Mutual's former Chairman and CEO, who championed me and prepared me to lead Penn Mutual.

What do you want Penn Mutual to accomplish in the next year?
Certainly I want us to continue our streak of outstanding years here at Penn Mutual. But perhaps even more important, we will measure our success in changing the legacy of the insurance industry, serving as a catalyst to transform our industry into one that is open to reinventing itself. Our industry must make itself more welcoming to the workforce of today and better positioned to serve the needs of a new generation of clients and workers.

Our business makes commitments that last 30, 40 or even 50 years. The only way to meet those commitments is to continue to make ourselves relevant to our associates, advisors and clients, to the markets we serve, and to the people who work to advance our cause. That demands change, and change has not been a hallmark of the insurance industry or financial services as a whole. We intend to change that by becoming a company that embraces life's possibilities for our people and for the people who depend on us for financial solutions that protect and advance their goals in life.